The UNM Foundation: Our Stories of Impact

She Was the First

The first woman to get her PhD in engineering from The University of New Mexico opens the door further for other women pursuing an engineering education

Delores Etter has had two careers—one in academia and another in service to her country, but often with engineering at the forefront. “Engineering is just vital to our society,” she says. “Many people don’t realize that several things they count on, including phones, rely on engineering.” 

Etter realized its value early on, becoming the first woman to get her PhD in engineering from The University of New Mexico, graduating in 1979. From there, she became a professor at the school for roughly the next decade. “I didn’t even know at the time that I would be the first with the degree,” says Etter, who would later serve as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Science and Technology and Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition. “Even today, we still need to do more to make sure women are exposed more to engineering and become leaders in the field.” She’s made sure to be a part of the solution, now having supported more than 40 women studying engineering through a scholarship funded by her and her husband, Jerry. 

The Delores and Jerry Etter Scholarship Program started with 10 freshmen receiving it for an academic year. Later, the couple decided to fund additional scholarships to award recipients for four academic years, rather than just one year. It has kept going ever since. “It not only can help students, but it also lets them know we support them and that we’re cheering them on during their time at the school,” Etter says.

Current headshot of Delores Etter

“It helps so much with the expenses you just don’t think about when you go to school,”
– Mary Arnhart

Delores Etter teaching at a blackboard

Mary Arnhart, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, has been grateful for the support. “It helps so much with the expenses you just don’t think about when you go to school,” says Arnhart, who has held multiple internships at Sandia National Laboratories while attending UNM, including as a Mechanics Materials Tribology Undergrad R&D Intern and a Global Security Center Undergrad R&D Intern, and originally hails from Albuquerque. Mary shared her gratitude for the Etters support by saying, “That they cared so much to support so many of us—it really makes you feel lucky.”

Etter, who also has been an engineering professor at the University of Colorado and Southern Methodist University before retiring in 2017, finds the scholarship as a positive way to stay connected to education, something that filled so much of her professional life. “I believe that education can be the start of changing a life,” she says. “It provides opportunity, opens up curiosity. It’s just a building block that can help for so many years to come. I’ve loved being a part of it and gained so much from being a part of college students’ lives.”

Delores Etter and Jerry Etter standing next to each other
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